Written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, Short Term 12 tells the story of Grace (Brie Larson), a twenty-something caretaker at a foster-care facility for emotionally disturbed, at-risk youth. Passionate about her job, Grace has wards ranging in age from pre-pubescent to almost 18 years old. The kids are fragile, needy, and difficult to reach, despite their bluster and occasional invective. Grace finds solace in her work which she shares with her longtime boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), who is as sweet as Grace can be sour.
The couple and their coworkers spend their days managing the kids’ sudden outbursts, escape attempts, and crises, some of which are quite violent. When an intelligent but troubled tween named Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever, in a standout performance) arrives at the facility, Grace identifies with the girl too closely for her own good, which threatens the stability of her already challenging adult life and puts her relationship with Mason in jeopardy. As Grace, Larson goes all out with her forceful portrayal.
Grace’s daily labor is also a kind of therapy for her, a way of dealing with personal traumas from childhood whose effect persists. Despite their manifold emotional problems, the institutions’ young residents seem to help Grace heal. Grace’s psychic wounds run deep, though, and her kinship with Jayden—a girl so riven with anguish that she regularly carves deep marks into her own skin—makes Grace especially vulnerable to regression. Although Mason looks at her as a smitten puppy might gaze at his master, he is hardier at heart, and is capable of separating his work life from his home life. For instance, when one of the residents comes of age—thereby forfeiting his home at the institution—and in his fear becomes furious and intractable, Mason ably draws the boy out without letting the boy’s troubles become his own.
Short Term 12 is an earnest film that tries hard to be honest and direct about the suffering of children. Despite the heavy subject matter, the film never bogs down into the daily grief it depicts, but maintains a jaunty current of humor that counterbalances its melodramatic content. Even as its underage characters attempt suicide or fall into catatonia, the filmmakers do their best to see the lighter side of things, a formula which may satisfy some viewers more than others. Their film most convincingly comes into its own towards the end as it adopts a suspenseful mode. Cretton shows good instincts as a director, especially in terms of camera placement, while DP Brett Pawlak renders the image in washed-out tones.
Short Term 12 is a heartfelt look at a special place for young people who have had a hard time of it. Although heavy on exposition and generally predictable, it is hopeful and humorous in the face of emotionally difficult situations.